New Car Reviews

2011 Nissan Leaf: Super Commuter

Long-Term Update: Summer 2011 Array Miles to date: 0

Quaint though it may sound in this era of instant communication, life at Automobile Magazine very much revolves around the monthly cycle of producing a magazine. During the early part of the month, we plan stories, go on adventures, and generally have a grand ole time while driving as much as possible. By week three and especially week four, however, we buckle down into production mode: writing, proofreading, coffee drinking, and then more proofreading. Exhausted drives home are the norm, leading editors to pine less for a hot engine and more for cool air-conditioning, a good radio, and cozy seats. In other words, we become normal commuters.

It was in this context that I drew the Leaf for “closing week.” Seeing the turtle that indicates you’re almost out of range is a good story on a Sunday afternoon. Seeing it at 1:30 am on a Wednesday is one hell of an inconvenience. As a resident of downtown Ann Arbor who lives a scant 1.6 miles from the office, I was simply the safest candidate. At the same time, the unique nature of this week, along with my city-dwelling lifestyle, provides a seemingly perfect stage for an electric car to impress.

Monday, June 27
I climb into the Leaf after work on Monday with a full charge. Any other week, I’d likely try to maximize the car’s range by driving smoothly and using the air-conditioning sparingly. But it’s 1:16 am and I’ve spent the last fourteen hours staring at a computer screen. I fall into the seat and scoot the trackball shifter into reverse before I remember that there’s an umbilical cord connecting me to the garage wall. Grumbling to the empty garage, I require all of ten seconds to unplug the charger and latch the flap that forms the Leaf’s “grille.” I take it relatively easy heading out of the parking structure but spare no kilowatts on the empty city streets. Spurting up to 45 mph between stop signs, the Leaf impresses with its instant torque delivery — typical for an electric car — and cosseting ride — very atypical given the toll that heavy batteries can take on a suspension. Its gauges, styled very similarly to those in a Honda Civic, perfectly suit my tired eyes with a clear, bright digital speed readout positioned prominently above all the secondary information that just doesn’t matter at this time of night. Within ten minutes, I’m home and sound asleep. There’s certainly no range anxiety keeping me awake.

Tuesday, June 28
Being the closest person to the office makes it rather embarrassing to walk in late. With the minutes ticking away and the range display still indicating more than 80 miles (A/C on), I decide not to climb the six floors to our charging station. Coming back later in the day from lunch, though, I decide — out of habit more than necessity — to plug in. The only problem is that there’s a decidedly nonelectric Porsche Cayenne parked in our space. Just as I’m about to call a tow truck, the apologetic owner arrives and pulls away. I’m magnanimous but likely would have been much less so if there’d been even the slightest concern about having enough juice to go home.

Many hours later, the Leaf’s HID headlamps do a great job illuminating the desolate streets and, more important, make it hard to miss the otherwise silent, invisible machine breezing through the night.

Wednesday, June 29
Not much to report other than that I’m running late again. I drive to the office aggressively enough to expose the Leaf’s strong tendency to understeer. No surprise, really, but it saps fun all the same. On the plus side, the steering is pretty quick, and the regenerative brakes show greater poise than those in most other electric cars and hybrids. I’m also able to make the traction control system nervous with a moment of wheel spin as I pull away from a stop sign. For its efforts, the Leaf gets another thirteen hours hooked up to the wall charger – of which it probably needed only thirteen minutes – before being pressed into service for another late-night drive home.

Thursday, June 30
Most of our September issue is off to the printing plant (you should see it on newsstands August 2), meaning we’re able to leave at a normal hour. For the first time all week, I drive beyond the well-trodden route between the house and office. That’s right — grocery shopping!

Although the Leaf’s cabin impresses me for its late-night functionality, its aesthetics aren’t quite up to par on this sunny afternoon. As is the case with other electric and hybrid cars, accountants have clearly put pennies in a vise grip in order to make up for the cost of exotic powertrain technology. The Leaf’s interior materials thus fall short of what’s in several subcompacts that cost less than $20,000. We’re talking a rock-hard dashboard and old-fashioned “mouse fur” cloth seats that seem to attract dirt like Velcro. It’s a credit to Nissan designers — who have honed their skills on the cheap but stylish Cube and Juke — that a cabin this cheap doesn’t feel at all grim. The simple, modern dash design and large windshield instead create a cheerful, airy atmosphere that doesn’t try to hit you over the head with the car’s modernity (yes, that’s a jab at the Chevrolet Volt and the Toyota Prius).

The late-afternoon sun beats into the Leaf’s cabin with enough intensity that I soon abort a half-hearted attempt to go without air-conditioning to maximize driving range. And really, why should I bother? As in most built-up American towns, there are several supermarkets within a five-mile radius. By the end of the week, I’ll have hit two of them, for a total of about eight miles of driving.

Friday, July 1
With the weekend imminent, I finally consider my options for charging the Leaf at home. “Options” may be an overly optimistic term. I do have my own garage, but I do not find a working outlet there, probably because the structure is eighty years old. The best I can manage is to run an extension cord across a set of stairs that I share with my downstairs neighbors and into an outlet in our shared basement – definitely not a long-term solution. Now, one can argue that a real Leaf owner could and would opt for a 240-volt home hookup, but I cannot imagine my elderly landlord granting permission to make a major modification to his property. And even if he did, who pays the bill? For today, at least, I decide to make do with 80 miles of range.

Sunday, July 3
After leaving the Leaf parked all day Saturday, I’m off to downtown Ypsilanti, Michigan, to the Camaro Superfest, a meeting of mostly older Chevrolet Camaros of the sort I idolized when I was a small boy. A small boy standing with his father in a Walgreens parking lot along the way, though, seems to idolize the Leaf. He flashes me the thumbs-up and grins when I open my window to say hello. He really wants his mother to buy one, he explains, and deems the exterior design tasteful. Take that, Automobile Magazine design editor Robert Cumberford. The boy and his dad both luxuriate in the silence left in the Leaf’s wake as I drive away.

Six miles later, I’m among a decidedly nonsilent crowd of Camaros, which are lustily pouring out hydrocarbons as they pull in and out of the park where the gathering is taking place. If only I could trade some carbon credits for memorabilia. The sight and sound of so many people gathered around cars they absolutely love momentarily fills me with envy and maybe even nostalgia. Competent as the Leaf may be, it’s hard to imagine anyone climbing into a Leaf for the simple joy of driving it, let alone having it dipped in an acid bath and dressed in several layers of clear coat. The Camaro guys nevertheless regard the little Nissan with curiosity and respect as I sidle up next to their rides for a photo.

Monday, July 4
This is when Leaf ownership becomes a bit of a drag. Ann Arbor is essentially deserted and closed for business in honor of the holiday, and many people seem to have followed my downstairs neighbors’ lead and driven off to the west side of Michigan. Their absence allows me to top off the Leaf with a few hours’ worth of juice from my basement, but there’s really nothing within the Leaf’s range that’s worth driving to. So I hardly drive it at all, instead spending much of the day on my bicycle. Riding around along many of the short routes I took in the Leaf earlier in the week, it occurs to me that my city-driving habits hardly amount to enough to make worthwhile owning any new car. The raison d’etre for urban car ownership is the ability to drive away from the city — an ability the Leaf all but lacks.

Still, as I roll silently over to a park (0.2 miles away) later that night to watch some fireworks, I can appreciate the Leaf’s accomplishment. It handled the monotony of commuting and errand running – the way most Americans primarily use their vehicles — as well as anything on the market, only it cost me barely any money to operate and directly emitted not an ounce of poison into the atmosphere. I still pine for a classic Camaro – or anything with a gas engine — to take me on weekend adventures, but I have to admit that, for the less glamorous weekday driving, the Leaf does just as well.

2011 Nissan Leaf

Base price (with destination): $33,600
Price as tested: $33,930
Available federal tax rebate: up to $7500

Standard Equipment:
16″ aluminum alloy wheels
Portable trickle-charger cable
Front-seat side-impact air bags
Front- and rear-seat side curtain air bags
Stability and traction control
Tire pressure monitoring system
Electronic brake force distribution and brake assist
Vehicle security system
Cruise control
6-speaker CD audio system with audio input jack
USB connection port
XM Satellite Radio
Navigation system
Multi-function trip computer
Power windows & locks
LED headlights & taillights
Bluetooth hands-free phone system

Options on this vehicle:
Splash guards, $140
Floor mats & cargo area mat $170
Cargo net $20

Key options not on vehicle:
Internal-combustion engine (not offered)
Solar panel spoiler
Rearview camera
Auto on/off headlamps

EPA-rated range:
73 miles

Estimated charging time:
220-volt outlet: 8 hours
110-volt outlet: 21 hours
DC fast charge to 80%: 30 minutes

80 kW AC synchronous motor
24 kWh lithium-ion battery
3.3 kW onboard charger
120-volt portable trickle charging cable
240-volt home charging dock
Optional 50 kW DC fast-charging port


Single-speed direct-drive

Curb weight: 3366 lb
Coefficient of drag: 0.29
Length x width x height: 175.0 x 69.7 x 61.0 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in